The ranking of State-run higher education institutions (HEIs) together with centrally funded institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Institute of Science, the National Institutes of Technology, central universities, etc. using the National Institutional Ranking Framework , or the NIRF (a methodology adopted by the Ministry of Education, Government of India, to rank institutions of higher education in India), is akin to comparing apples and oranges.
The outline, institute data
The NIRF outlines a methodology to rank HEIs across the country, which is based on a set of metrics for the ranking of HEIs as agreed upon by a core committee of experts set up by the then Ministry of Human Resources Development (now the Ministry of Education), Government of India. The rationale to compare State universities and colleges with the Ivy League of India, to which the Central government is committed to sponsoring resources and infrastructure, is inexplicable. The Central government earmarked the sums, ₹7,686 crore and ₹7,643.26 crore to the IITs and central universities, respectively, in the Union Budget 2021.
According to an All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20 report, there are 1,043 HEIs; of these, 48 are central universities, 135 are institutions of national importance, one is a central open university, 386 are State public universities, five are institutions under the State legislature act, 14 are State open universities, 327 are State private universities, one is a State private open university, 36 are government deemed universities, 10 are government aided deemed universities and 80 are private deemed universities.
A close study of this data shows that 184 are centrally funded institutions (out of 1,043 HEIs in the country) to which the Government of India generously allocates its financial resources in contrast to inadequate financial support provided by State governments to their respective State public universities and colleges. Ironically, out of the total student enrolment, the number of undergraduate students is the largest (13,97,527) in State public universities followed by State open universities (9,22,944).
Deficiencies in the focus
The financial health of State-sponsored HEIs is an open secret with salary and pension liabilities barely being managed. Hence, rating such institutions vis-à-vis centrally funded institutions does not make any sense. Interestingly, no agency carries out a cost-benefit analysis of State versus centrally funded HEIs on economic indicators such as return on investment the Government made into them vis-à-vis the contribution of their students in nation building parameters such as the number of students who passed out serving in rural areas, tier-2 and tier 3 cities of the country and bringing relief to common man.
While students who pass out of elite institutions generally prefer to move abroad in search of higher studies and better career prospects, a majority of State HEIs contribute immensely in building the local economy. Given the challenges State HEIs face in their day-to-day functioning, the NIRF seems to have taken cognisance of only the strength of institutions while completely disregarding the problems and the impediments they encounter, hence, disallowing a level-playing-field to State universities and colleges vis-à-vis their centrally funded counterparts. It must be noted that 420 universities in India are located in rural areas. Scare resources and the lackadaisical attitude of States preclude such institutions from competing with centrally sponsored and strategically located HEIs.
The NIRF ranks HEIs on five parameters: teaching, learning and resources; research and professional practice; graduation outcome; outreach and inclusivity, and perception. To take stock of the situation, let us first analyse two important NIRF parameters in the context of State HEIs. Teaching, learning and resources includes metrics viz. student strength including doctoral students, faculty-student ratio with an emphasis on permanent faculty, a combined metric for faculty with the qualification of PhD (or equivalent) and experience, and financial resources and their utilisation. In the absence of adequate faculty strength, most State HEIs lag behind in this crucial NIRF parameter for ranking. The depleting strength of teachers, from 15,18,813 (2015-16) to 15,03,156 (2019-20), as a result of continuous retirement and low recruitment has further weakened the faculty-student ratio with an emphasis on permanent faculty in HEIs.
Research and professional practice encompasses a combined metric for publications, a combined metric for quality of publications, intellectual property rights/patents and the footprint of projects, professional practice and executive development programmes. As most laboratories need drastic modernisation in keeping pace with today’s market demand, it is no wonder that State HEIs fare miserably in this parameter as well while pitted against central institutions.
Interestingly the share of PhD students is the highest in State public universities, i.e. 29.8%, followed by institutes of national importance (23.2%), deemed universities – private (13.9%) and central universities (13.6%), while the funds State HEIs receive are much less when compared to centrally funded institutions. As quality research publications and the number of patents filed in State HEIs are contingent on well-equipped laboratories, modern libraries and generously funded infrastructure, it is imperative for policymakers to reorient financial allocation strategies towards State HEIs. Similarly, three other NIRF parameters too offer little opportunity for State HEIs to compete with their better and conveniently placed competitors for ranking. The total enrolment in higher education has been estimated to be 38.5 million — 19.6 million boys and 18.9 million girls (female students constitute 49% of the total enrolment).
Where State HEIs struggle
There is another aspect: State HEIs are struggling to embrace emerging technologies involving artificial intelligence, machine learning, block chains, smart boards, handheld computing devices, adaptive computer testing for student development, and other forms of educational software/hardware to remain relevant as per the New Education Policy.
Therefore, when these two are put together, ranking HEIs on a common scale purely based on strengths without taking note of the challenges and the weaknesses they face is not justified. It is time the NIRF plans an appropriate mechanism to rate the output and the performance of institutes in light of their constraints and the resources available to them.
Milind Kumar Sharma teaches in the Department of Production and Industrial Engineering, M.B.M. Engineering College, Faculty of Engineering and Architecture, Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur (erstwhile University of Jodhpur). The views expressed are personal